Harbour Lights by Derek Mahon. The Gallery Press, 2005.
As Reviewed By: Alfred Corn
Myths about poetry and its production resist rational criticism, and we may be wasting our time trying to deconstruct the fable that English-language poetry has unfolded under what might be called a presiding genius, a directive energy moving from place to place at different points in history. Instead of refuting this myth, suppose I summarize it and see whether any part of it has useful content. The poetic power originating in England with Chaucer continued to thrive there through most of the nineteenth century; it began, after Whitman, to favor Americans more. Yeats, then MacNeice and Kavanaugh were able to tempt it over to Ireland, partly because they all spent a lot of time in England. Just after the close of the Second World War, it returned to the United States. There was a brief sojourn back to the homeland when Larkin and Hughes were writing their best poems. Then, in the 1970s, the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Paul Muldoon, and Eavan Boland began to find an audience on both sides of the Atlantic, with the result that the genius of poetry performed a straddling maneuver. It seemed simultaneously Irish and American, a reflection of the intermittent or permanent residence of these admired figures in the States. Of course there are strictly American poets who still command international attention, and in recent decades there have been applause and respectful nods in the direction of the Caribbean and Australia; but only for individual cases. The nation now apparently beginning to win the favor of English language’s presiding genius is Scotland. For the moment, though, it still lives in what could be called Ireland’s America, or America’s Ireland.
[private]If Heaney is the traditional bard and elegist of rural experience, and Muldoon the dazzling, rock-my-world metaphorist, and Boland the bell-clear translator of family experience, Mahon is a bit harder to characterize. Learned, cosmopolitan, ironically humorous, realist, and a classicist in aesthetics, he seems the least Irish of them all. The homeland is not a major subject for him, probably because poetic treatment of his Protestant Belfast origins couldn’t, in the political climate of recent history, expect sympathetic interest. When in Ireland, he prefers to live in the South, and, meanwhile, seems as much at home in New York as he is in the Republic. In fact, one of the best poems about contemporary New York is the book-length The Hudson Letter (1996), which, along with The Yellow Book (1998), demonstrates Mahon’s ease and brilliance in writing the modern extended verse sequence.
With Harbour Lights-the Gallery Press should, by the way, be congratulated on the handsome production of this and other books on their list-Mahon returns to his early strengths as a lyric poet. True, the title poem here and a couple of others run to several pages, but we find no sequences as long as those in the 1996 and 1998 volumes. Unusual for this poet is the prevailing happiness in subject and tone, no doubt because of the appearance of a new love and a new child, which must have come as a surprise to a divorced poet now in his sixties.
I who, though soft-hearted, always admired
granite and blackthorn and the verse hard-wired,
tingle and flow like January thaw-water
in contemplation of this rosy daughter.
Be patient with an old bloke; remember later
one who, in his own strange, distracted youth
awake to the cold stars for the harsh truth,
now tilts a bottle to your open mouth.
So drench the nappies; fluff, burble and burp:
I probably won’t be here when you’ve grown up.
(“The Cloud Ceiling”)
The last two lines help this poem counter the saccharine aspect that often mars “blessed event” poems, and not only because of the banal and messy aspects of childcare reported. Mahon registers the pathos of late-life parenthood and the actuarial probability that the new arrival will at an early age lose its father. Alert readers will notice that this passage is written in heroic couplets (plus a tercet rhymed aaa, which in earlier centuries would have been marked with a bracket), without, I think, blasting the practice as does Sylvia Plath’s character Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar. Explaining why she skipped the undergraduate course requirement in the Augustan literature, this Plath stand-in says: “I hated the very idea of the eighteenth century, with all those smug men writing tight little couplets and being so dead keen on reason.” Mahon uses the couplet scheme more than any other in this book, even in the trimeter poem “The Widow of Kinsale,” but his half-rhymes and enjambments spare us the measure’s notorious thudding effect; and he often interrupts the onward rush of couplets with other rhyme schemes, for reasons of convenience or variety. He refuses metronomic adherence to the rules of versification just as he allows himself to be something more than purely reasonable.
The most important poem in the book, its pièce de résistance, is an epistle (“Resistance Days”) written to a friend in Ireland from Paris:
The sort of snail-mail that can take a week
but suits my method, pre-informatique,
I write this from the St. Louis, rm. 14-
or type it, rather, on the old machine,
a portable, that I take when I migrate
in ‘the run-up to Christmas’. Here I sit
amidst the hubbub of the rue de Seine
while a winter fly snores at a window-pane.
Old existentialists, old beats, old punks
sat here of old; some dedicated drunks
still sing in the marketplace, and out the back
there’s an old guy who knew Jack Kerouac.
America, France, and Ireland (“out the back”) contribute to the diction and sense of this poem, to which Esther Greenwood’s strictures don’t really apply. Expanding the scope of the poem’s implicit globalism, Mahon gives a flashback account of his just-completed trip to Tangiers, which is described in terms both appealing (“then ocean contours, minaret and souq / a dribbling fountain, swirling palms . . .”) and shrewdly assessed.
. . . as everywhere the filmable populations
have now been framed in shinier compositions,
the open prison of the corporate whole,
for even dissent has long been marketable-
even in the desert of legend and dark myth,
of drought and genocide, what Patti Smith
calls ‘the real earth of Rimbaud’, no daisies there.
Burroughs and Ginsberg-9, rue Gît le Coeur-
who thought to undermine the monolith
were building new sandcastles in the air.
Again, Mahon doesn’t wear his heroic couplets here like armor or a straitjacket and allows himself a variable meter with a concluding shift in rhyme scheme. Rimbaud’s relevance to contemporaneity he shores up by citing the Symbolist poet’s most famous pop-music adherent, who, when she sings the praises of Rimbaud, is always at the same time aiming a puff toward the sails of her cohort bateau ivre Robert Mapplethorpe. The reference takes us back to New York and a couple of the Beat Movement’s best known gay heroes, both often seen in Paris and as well as Tangiers. It may cost us a pang to hear it, but the Beats’ hopeful project of bringing down international capitalism can now plausibly be pronounced defunct. Mahon does so by describing it as “building new sandcastles in the air,” recalling the seaside play of the children in the first section of Hart Crane’s “Voyages,” which in turn alludes to the conclusion of The Drunken Boat. There Rimbaud’s child of Europe launches not a full-scale vessel but a toy boat, and not on the open sea but on a puddle of rainwater-a tranquil, de-romanticized replacement for the heroic dereliction of the inebriate vessel. Rimbaud’s conclusion is either a sober, well-reasoned recantation or else a bourgeois failure of nerve. The reader of 1870 and of 2007 must decide.
From the reassumed vantage point of Paris’s Deux Magots café, Mahon pursues his theme by comparing present actuality with the era of the Occupation and Resistance, inevitably more heroic and richer in texture. Yet he detects remnants of authenticity in contemporary France, a resistance updated and directed this time against American hegemony and all its works: predatory corporations, fast food, and touristic or virtual substitutes for fully inhabited experience. Poetry then becomes for him an artistic form of contestatory effort, partly through problems posed by form itself. The quotation that opens this excerpt recalls statements that Paul Valéry made about the value of meter and rhyme as a way of lending a marble-like hardness to language, so that only someone with the skills of a sculptor in stone could attempt to do good work in it.
‘No art without the resistance of the medium’:
our own resistance to the murderous tedium
of business culture lays claim to the real
as product, no, but as its own ideal-
live seizures in the flux, fortuitous archetypes,
an art as fugitive as the life it snaps,
tracing the magic of some primitive place
in the last retrenchment of the human face . . .
The paradox is that the marble of verse form finds its substance in what is most fleeting, “live seizures in the flux . . . / an art as fugitive as the life it snaps.” Mahon’s conclusion begins in the guise of a resolution:
After so much neglect, resolved anew,
creative anarchy I come back to you,
not the faux anarchy of media culture
but the real chaos of indifferent nature-
for instance, my own New Year resolution
is to study weather, clouds and their formation,
going straight to video with each new release
untroubled by the ignorant thought police.
Of course to invoke the thought police at all is to be troubled by them to some degree, just as New Year resolutions are always directed at only partly corrigible failings. Yet clouds, in their constantly evolving shapes, make an effective figure for free-floating, non-referential nature, whether or not they can be sculpted in marble. Anyway, several subsequent poems in the book invoke them, including the poem to his newborn child quoted above. It must be said, though, that Mahon doesn’t ever entirely become a poet of prima materia; he remains intensely allusive, in fact, “Lucretius on Clouds” is actually the close translation of an excerpt from De rerum natura. The book includes several other translations as well, the most impressive Mahon’s version of the Valéry Le Cimetière marin (“The Seaside Cemetery”). That poem, first published in 1920, embodied Valéry’s pivotal resolution to elude the paralysis instilled by foreknowledge of death and the fundamental meaninglessness of existence. Less correct in prosody and content than the brilliantly resourceful translation done by C. Day Lewis, Mahon’s version nevertheless sounds more contemporary and Dionysian; he comes close to making us believe that he wrote the poem himself. “Le vent se lève. Il faut tenter de vivre” in Mahon’s hands becomes “The wind rises; it’s time to start,” and the sea wind summoned first by Valéry and then by his translator is meant as a figure for the inspiriting breath of artistic creation as much as the will to defeat existential paralysis.
Mahon gives his Valéry the last word in these pages, perhaps in order to suggest that the book will have been a prelude to an even more vital series of works not yet written. In this framework, we’re allowed to imagine a new book depending less on epigraph and literary allusion (or, for that matter, translation, which is allusion at its most self-effacing). Although most of us will go some distance to visit important graves, we eventually tire of them. It’s more constructive to assimilate than to embalm the famous dead. Meanwhile, we have Harbour Lights, a treasure trove of sensory perception, intelligence, verbal invention, moral discernment, and wit, plus highly readable access to pleasure and happiness. As such, these texts serve as a challenge to the numbing effect of imperial capitalism, a challenge that can be translated into action by those readers who organize demonstrations, boycotts and letter campaigns. The wind is rising. County Cork, New York, Tangiers, Paris, n’importe où, hors de ce monde, it hardly matters, we have to start somewhere-maybe even here.[/private]